The twentieth Century was marked as the age of the machine and a revolution in human history; for the first time human beings partnered with noisy, greasy and powerful machine technology.[1] Josephine Gomez was born October 16, 1921 in Baltimore, to a family that used a motorcycle as transportation. Her father, Luciano Gomez, was born in Spain in 1889 and had apprenticed in his home village to become a cabinetmaker. He saved his money and, like many of his young friends, felt the urge to buy a bicycle, and explore this novel means of transportation.  While riding with friends a few days after his purchase, he was shocked to encounter his first motorcycle.  Of course he wanted it, but with all his money spent, how could he possibly get his hands on one? America…surely if he went to America, he could afford a motorcycle. He joined the Merchant Marine and traveled the world. At port in Bayonne NJ, a friend with a motorcycle let Luciano take it for a ride. Just as he’d imagined. He jumped ship and settled among other Spanish immigrants living on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Josephine Vandell in 1940 with her Indian Scout on Staten Island. [Vandell Family Archive]
Arthur Vandell Jr. is Josphine’s son, and relates the tale: “My grandfather (Luciano Gomez) was born in Spain in 1889. He apprenticed as a cabinetmaker, and at the end of his apprenticeship he had enough money to buy a bicycle. So he and his friends went on a ride up the mountain to a resort. They stopped halfway and they heard this noise coming up the hill. Here comes three guys on motorcycles, and they had never seen one before. So Luciano says, ‘oh my goodness, I just spent all my money on this bicycle…now I am never going to get a motorcycle. The only way I will get a motorcycle is if I go to America.’ This was 1905. He saw the first airplane, the first car that came into his town. Then he joined the Spanish Merchant Marine.”

Paterfamilias of the Gomez family, and a first-generation immigrant to the USA, posing proudly with the motivation for moving to the USA: to afford a motorcycle! Luciano poses in 1940 with his Indian Chief. [Vandell Family Archive]
Josephine Gomez Vandell adds to the story of her father: “He came on a ship to Bayonne, New Jersey. He rode on a friend’s motorcycle and said, ‘Oh, wow!’ And he made up his mind that one day he was going to leave the ship and he is going to settle in this country. And he did. He was excited about being able to have his own independent transportation. This was like a new thing. My whole family rode Indians, a lot of motorcycles.”

Suzanne Vandell Quinn, Josephine’s daughter, pipes up: “My grandfather was a carpenter and he had a carpentry business on Pearl Street in Manhattan, and he had an Indian with a sidecar. He would come to Staten Island on the ferry and work on building his house by hand. After the house was finished, my grandfather and grandmother moved to Staten Island[2]. Back then, there were very few people on Staten Island. There wasn’t any transportation. They used the motorcycle. They didn’t have a car ‘till many years later.”

Josephine: “My father had the whole family on the motorcycle. I used to ride with my brother in the specially-made sidecar, and my mother rode behind my father. You know, when I lived in the other end of the island, in our neighborhood, we were the only ones with a vehicle, and it was a motorcycle (laughter). Transportation has changed since I was younger. In this part of the island there was no bus… you walked to the train station. My father Luciano Gomez was from Spain. There were many Spanish people living downtown Manhattan around Cherry street. They all had motorcycles. During the summer we’d all go off on our motorcycles, crabbing or something. And on the way we’d stop and somebody would make a fire from twigs, and they would make a paella. In those days we didn’t have refrigeration; we used to cook rice with whatever we coudl find, and snails. Oh, I used to love them.

The Richmond Motorcycle Club in 1939: all Indians, as that’s what the local dealer sold. [Vandell Family Archive]
“In 1931 we used to go to the shore a lot. We’d go crabbing down in Toms River (NJ). We went to Montreal, Canada during Prohibition [January 17, 1920-December 5, 1933] in the side car. We went to Niagara Falls in the side car. You have to remember, there were no highways. Staten Island was mostly dirt roads. There were still horse-drawn carts. I remember them. My father would be driving the motorcycle, we were in the side car and I remember going past horses and wagons.[3] My father had a special sidecar made by a company named Goulding. This sidecar could be taken off [its chassis], and he made a little cart and he put that on for his cabinet business. Where he would carry his lumber and all that. When it rained, there was a cover onfor the sidecar, and we’d get under that. And we would go to sleep there. When we took that trip to Montreal there were no paved roads. We wore goggles. Sometimes we’d get stung by a bee. We had a cloth helmet that was a flight helmet.

Riding gear and aviation gear were very similar in the 1920s and ’30s, before flying suits became more specialized. Pilots were dashing and usually wealthy, setting the standard for suitable adventure outfits. This young woman in the 1920s wears high flying style, with a cinched leather coat and leather jodhpurs, a classic flying helmet with goggles, and high boots with speed laces. Flapper chic! [The Vintagent Archive]
“[In the] 1930s we didn’t have a lot of examples of how to do all this. We looked at pilots and airplanes for what to do. How to dress. Airplanes were still a new thing. A pilot was a new thing. Going fast and traveling. This was a new thing, Ya. We were looking at flight.  It was a pleasure riding in those days…there wasn’t any traffic on the roads. There were no highways, no interstates, no hotels to stay at, no restaurants to eat. We are talking 1926-7. We’d be touring on the motorcycle and there weren’t really any hotels. We’d find a place with a cabin. Sometimes you’d see other people with motorcycles. There weren’t people with cars.

“There were no maps, no tour guides, nothing. Maybe we had a compass. There was the Lincoln Highway [dedicated Oct. 31, 1913. Ran from Times Square NYC to Lincoln Park in San Francisco]. And there was one road that went from Maine to Florida [The Florida Highway was first built in 1938]. Many parts of those roads were paved. It was a pleasure driving then.

Josephine Vandell on her Indian Scout in 1940; note the extra-deep fender valences, and the influence of flying gear on her outfit. [Vandell Family Archive]
“We had to have tools. My father kept his tools in the sidecar. Yes, you had to have knowledge about how these things worked. If something broke you had to figure it out on your own. My brother worked as a mechanic for Mike Lombardi Sr for forty years [Staten Island Motorcycle dealership originally opened in 1905 by Frank Lombardi as a general store]. Many people came from long distances to have my brother work on their motorcycles. Staten Island has a real history of high speed guys…there was a lot of racing; Thompson Stadium…Weissglass…there were a couple race tracks and hill climbs.

“I was nineteen, twenty-two, twenty-three when I got my first motorcycle. I bought an Indian Scout around 1939. I was the only woman with a motorcycle in my area. Then there were a couple women in the Richmond club [Richmond Motorcycle Club] who had motorcycles. There was a woman named Wanda and she had a motorcycle. This was not a question of being cool. There was no such thing as cool.

“There was no such thing as cool.” Because Josephine Vandell was too busy living cool to ever worry about that. Here’s another shot from 1940 on her Indian Scout, wearing a wool jacket with leather collar, and heavy cotton trousers. [Vandell Family Archive]
“We followed the racing circuit. Many of the daughters and sisters of the riders were their mechanics. It never bothered me to get my hands dirty. My Indian was a simple motorcycle. I wasn’t that good at mechanics, luckily I had my brother ‘Don’; actually his name was Selestino, but some of the guys in the club called him Don Juan, and Don stuck as his nickname. And my father knew how to work on motorcycles. The Gomez family was known for motorcycles. In Staten Island there weren’t that many motorcycles around. My father rode, my brother, and my husband and my son. Now I have my grandsons riding. And my son in law, he rode. The best man at my wedding and my husband’s brother… It was affordable to ride a motorcycle.

The Richmond MC hosted hillclimbing and racing in the 1930s and 40s. [Vandell Family Archive]
“We were before the ‘thing’ about motorcycles and ‘rebel culture’. We rode Indians. Mike Lombardi (Sr.) sold Indians. Back then a lot of people who rode Indians were different from people who rode Harley-Davidsons. The women who were in the Richmond club were dignified. My Scout was a 45 cubic inch motorcycle. It was heavy. The seat was a comfortable distance from the ground. I could easily sit on my motorcycle. One time I had to stop real fast because this car was coming, they didn’t see me because the sun was in his eyes… He was heading for me… So I dropped the bike. Then I had to pick it up… the poor man was so apologetic.

“I felt independent… You’d get that breeze… I was so used to that. It was great… That’s how I met my husband. He was in the men’s Richmond Club and I was in the auxiliary. We used to have nice parties. Lombardi had his shop in the back, they had a little shack and we had all our parties there. That’s where I met my husband. It was good clean fun. None of the girls were married but the men were gentlemen. We’d all foxtrot around the floor. It was like a family outing. Beach parties, BBQs.

Another Richmond MC event; picnics and dirt racing in 1940. [Vandell Family Archive]
“We rode through all the weather but we didn’t think about it. That’s what we did. We didn’t think we were tough. This is just what we did. Yeah. Then I met my husband and we got married and then I was pregnant with Arthur Jr. and I gave it up. That was in ’47. My father had a 1936 Ford coupe with a rumble seat. Those were the good ol’ days…we had no money but we sure had fun. Ha. Transportation and traveling was in our blood. We loved it. I loved driving. Motorcycles and cars and driving was how we socialized. This is how we met each other. I liked to go skiing and skating…I guess the motorcycle thing was embedded in me. My father, my brother, it was second nature, it was no big deal. This is something I always knew. I think I paid $200 for my Scout. It was used. The fella was in the Army with my brother. I worked at Fort Wadsworth [the military base on Staten Island, opened during the Civil War 1861-1979].

The c.1948 HRD-Vincent Series B Rapide owned by Luciano Gomez of Staten Island, on which Josephine first experienced ‘doing the ton’. [Vandell Family Archive]
“My mother was French, my father was Spanish. They met in England. They were adventurous people. They didn’t think they were, but when I think about my mother coming here, she was like a pioneer. I still love to sit on a motorcycle. I don’t ride now, with this traffic. When I was young and rode, I would open it up a little…yeah. I think the fastest I rode was around 70mph. My father had a Vincent HRD Rapide [Series B] and it was fast. I went around 100mph on the back with my father. I remember we went to New Hampshire on that thing. That wasn’t the most comfortable motorcycle. The back seat was kinda hard. My Indian was a comfortable motorcycle. It had a big seat. The good ol’ days…ha ha.

“It was motorcycles and our sense of transportation. Having fun…there was no issue of bad behavior…no. When I see that place in the Dakotas – Sturgis – when I see those girls on the back of the motorcycles, they are half-dressed, and they have those thongs on their feet, and short shorts, I say, Oh my God, if they ever fall down boy are they gonna be scraped. We all wore boots. Even in the summertime we wore leather jackets. We wore jodhpur horse riding pants.

The Women’s Auxiliary of the Richmond MC at a club dinner in 1952. [Vandell Family Archive]
“My brother was born on Cherry Street in downtown Manhattan. I was born in Baltimore. There were a lot of Spanish people in the Cherry Street area. There were a lot of Irish people in there too. You know, the ages of people have changed in my lifetime, with older and younger people. When I was young before WWII things were different between older and younger. There were a lot of older people.[4] But Oh ya, when I was on my motorcycle, and I had the wind in my hair, I had a sense about myself. I was riding on my Scout, I was going where I wanted to go.

“We wore Buco leather jackets. We were into style. I paid attention to how I wanted to look. We wore certain clothes that we always wore when we rode. We wore blue cotton pants but they weren’t jeans. There was no such thing as dungarees. Not then. We wore heavy cotton pants.

June 1946, a Richmond MC club photo wearing club shirts. [Vandell Family Archive]
“I was usually with somebody else, know what I mean, on a long ride. We always had a little tool box. We used to go all over. Early, early in the morning we’d go to Toms River New Jersey to go crabbing and by noon time we’d come back with a bushel of crabs. Today you’d be lucky to get one or two. We went all over Jersey. I was too young to remember then when I rode with my father. I don’t know if he had a map. He had a good sense of direction.

“This is what my family did. We rode motorcycles. Nobody ever said anything in the neighborhood. In the house I lived in, my father built that house. He’d come every night by motorcycle and dig the foundation by hand. There were no bulldozers… When I was young there wasn’t a lot of money. There wasn’t any transportation in this area. There was a bus we could take to school but it cost a nickel. We didn’t even have a nickel. So we walked. Two miles.

Josephine Vandell’s club shirt for the Richmond MC. [Vandell Family Archive]
“Me riding on a motorcycle as a young woman was different. I didn’t think of myself as a rebel. This is what I did. It was a good life. We managed. Staten Island was all farms. Oh yeah. Out on the south shore we were kind of hillbillys. We’d look across the water at Manhattan… We were so close to it but where we lived was so rural. Most of the jobs were in Manhattan so people took the ferry. Kind of isolated.

“When we used to go riding, we’d meet up with a dozen motorcyclists. Different kinds of people we wouldn’t usually see. They’d be from a club all going. There was a club from the Bronx and they were a good bunch. There were all different races of people riding in New York. This is how we met each other. As a kid I had a sense of confidence. The motorcycle helped me to have this as a woman. A lot of this confidence was passed to me by my mother. She had been an orphan since she was 13 years old. She had to figure everything out by herself. I learned this independence from my mother. It was a natural thing. I was prepared to take on the world. Whatever I needed to do, I went ahead and did it. I was the only young woman I knew who rode a motorcycle. This helped me be who I am.”

The memorial card for Josephine Vandell, who died aged 102 in January 2024.  She would never have thought of herself as an icon, but here she is, looking iconic in 1940. [Vandell Family Archive]
Josephine Gomez Vandell passed away January 10, 2024 at the age of 102. Her oral history chronicles her life-long passion for motorcycles and how they provided her with a sense of self and independence.

[1] One reason the 20th Century exploded in economic advancement is connected to the automobile. Economists will tell you that when a developing economy introduces the automobile, that economy will double in GDP in ten years.

[2] New York City has five boroughs- Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, Staten Island. Early 20th Century, Staten Island was rural farmland (dairy farms that supplied milk to the city). Underpopulated. It has been referred to as the ‘Forgotten Borough’. Population during Josephine’s day, 1930, was 6,930. By 2020 the population was 495,747. The construction of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge (1959-1964), along with the other three major Staten Island bridges, created a new way for commuters and tourists to travel from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Manhattan, and areas farther east on Long Island.

[3] In 1900, around 130,000 horses worked in Manhattan–more than 10 times the number of taxicabs on the streets of New York City today. A typical city horse produced up to 45 pounds (20 kilograms) of manure and 2 gallons (7.5 liters) of urine a day. Many city horses died young, sometimes in the street. By the early twentieth century, the number of horses in the city began to diminish. Technology, in the form of motor vehicles—cars and trucks, gradually reduced the city’s reliance on horsepower. Between 1910 and 1920, the number of horses in the City declined from 128,000 to 56,000.

[4] The baby boom that began after soldiers returned from the war in 1945 was an important demographic shift that occurred during the 1950s; there were more than 70 million births between 1946 and 1964 in the United States. By 1960, an estimated 60 percent of the U.S. population was under age 30. This demographic shift towards youth changed the tone of American culture.

My thanks to Arthur Vandell Jr. (Josephine Vandell’s son), Tim Quinn, and Suzanne Vandell Quinn (Josephine’s daughter, married to Tim), for their generous help with this article, and for the use of treasured family photos.  This interview was conducted on 7/25/2014.

Michael McCabe is a New York City tattoo artist and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of New York City Horsepower, Kustom Japan, New York City Tattoo, Japanese Tattooing Now, Tattoos of Indochina, and Tattooing New York City. For New York City Horsepower, Mr. McCabe spent two years discovering and documenting underground custom motorcycle and car garages in the City, as rapid gentrification put their culture under tremendous pressure. He interviewed and photographed New York City customizers about their personal histories and creative sensibilities.
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